Bioscopia: Final Thoughts

bioscopia-dinoBioscopia is now off the Stack. I resorted to a walkthough once — I tried to avoid it, out of a suspicion that once I started on the hints, I’d keep on hitting them. A game like this is pretty reliant on the wandering-around-confused phases, because that’s when you notice the hotspots you missed before, and find clues and items you’ll need for puzzles you haven’t encountered yet. But toward the end, when I had more or less exhausted the environment, this rationale wore thin.

bioscopia-lettersThere was one point earlier on when I was severely tempted to cheat: it involved four dials, each of which could be set to any of eight letters. A word puzzle? Unlikely in a game translated from a foreign language. The letters conspicuously included A, T, C, and G, the abbreviations of the bases that form DNA, so it seemed reasonable that these would be the four letters in the combination. But in what order? Only one ordering was accepted, it turned out, but if there was a clue about it, I missed it — and having looked at a couple of walkthroughs after the fact, I find that I’m not the only one. But assuming that it’s a permutation of these four elements reduces the solution space from 4096 possibilities to a mere 24, amenable to brute force search. Riven had similarly subjected the player to trying out the remaining possibilities in conditions of incomplete information four years previously, but it somehow seemed more acceptable there. Probably it’s because Riven was aiming for believability, and the occasional lack of pat clues worked into that. Bioscopia is far too fundamentally contrived to ever use realism as an excuse.

The game involves more situational use of biological knowledge than I gave it credit for at first, although it never really gives up on merely using science as inspiration for increasingly-elaborate combination locks. Also, I wondered earlier if the authors were aware of the irony of using robots prominently. It turns out that they are: the robots, it turns out, are the bad guys; the disease that overcame the researchers is caused by their fumes. So it’s kind of a nature-vs-technology plot, except that the whole place is still extremely artifical. There are no living animals to be seen anywhere in the game, which is particularly weird given that there’s an entire section about zoology.

Actually, there’s technically one animal: a human, a fellow explorer, trapped and sick and occasionally sending you text messages stressing the urgency of her situation. Curing and rescuing this damsel in distress produces the ending cutscene, a disappointing and slightly confusing piece of work, with some of the silliest-sounding maniacal laughter I’ve ever heard.

I’ve finished this game a full week ahead of schedule, but that’s OK, because the schedule itself has already slipped by two weeks. So I’ll be proceeding to 2002 without further delay.

Bioscopia: Symbols and Learning

Since my last post, I’ve started making progress again, mainly by revisiting places a lot to see if I noticed anything new. If nothing else, wandering in this way exposes the player to more “educational” content: in order to keep using doors, you have to periodically recharge your keycard by playing biology trivia at the card-recharging stations located in each major section, conveniently near the “big brain” machines that give you access to the in-game textbook containing all the answers.

The keycard turned out to be the key to my earlier stuckness, as it turned out that my initial low-clearance one could open two doors from the hub, not just one as I had believed. I could have sworn I had tried it on all of the doors, but I guess not. And by now, I have a superior card that lets me through any door with a slot. Not that all doors have slots. There are still puzzles to solve.

bioscopia-organOne of the first things I found this time around was an outsized organ attached to a wall, with an intake funnel and an outflow valve, like something out of a Fritz Kahn illustration. I’m not sure what organ it’s supposed to be — to me, it looks like a pancreas more than anything else, but that doesn’t fit the plumbing. At any rate, it was clearly a new type of puzzle: one based on interacting with biological mechanisms rather than just displaying knowledge of them. Mentally squinting, I think I can make out some less-obvious examples of this in the architecture, situations that are symbols of the processes that I’m supposed to be learning about, like how the circuitous entry into the inner part of the microbiology lab reflects the way a carrier protein transports a molecule through a cell membrane.

This sort of architectural symbolism was found abundantly in Chemicus, where the whole layout of the game was an imitation of the periodic table of elements (with the noble gases only accessible through a secret passage, indicating their resistance to ordinary connections). I suppose Bioscopia‘s overall layout similarly resembles a cell, with the inaccessible tree in the middle representing the nucleus. I’ve been assuming that crossing that chasm is the passage into the endgame, which means symbolically, what, impregnating the compound? Virally infecting it? The ultimate goal of the game is to rid the place of an infection, a plague contracted by the previous tenants.

At any rate, the organ on the wall is one of the few cases of the game attempting to teach through an approximation to what Ian Bogost calls “procedural rhetoric” — that is, instead of presenting the audience with a statement directly, presenting a rule-based system that embodies the statement and letting the audience discover it by interacting with the system. It’s not a very advanced example of this technique, though, and it pretty decisively fails at its pedagogical purpose: I interacted with it, I solved the puzzle it was part of, and I still don’t know what I was supposed to learn.

Bioscopia: Stuckness

My second session of Bioscopia was completely unproductive. There’s a circular hub with a large tree in the middle and keycard-activated doors all around; I’ve managed to access exactly one of these doors, in addition to the sector from which I entered, for a total of two. This is my realm, which I wander, looking for hotspots. They’re hard to find.

There are obvious places to click, to be sure: doors, drawers, levers, etc. But they’re not always clickable. Things that are locked or otherwise inactive don’t even let you give them a futile rattle. And sometimes the difference between clickable and unclickable things simply makes no sense. There’s one room containing a bunch of desks, which visibly have a pair of drawers on the left and right sides, but only the left drawers can be opened. Even worse, one of those drawers contains a pair of projector slides, only one of which can be picked up.

You can tell when the cursor is over a hotspot, because it changes in appearance. (When it works, which it doesn’t always — this sort of game has a perennial problem with things changing under the cursor when the cursor isn’t moving.) Thus, my adventures at the moment consist mainly of waving the cursor around on every screen, hoping to strike gold. There may not be any, mind you. There’s also the possibility of using inventory items on the environment, which provides no visual feedback about when it’s possible: you just have to look for plausible places to try each item. And even those won’t always work. I have a bucket in my possession, and I’ve tried it on every body of liquid I’ve seen, but apparently it can only carry the right liquid.

Sadly, I can’t even talk about how much better Physicus and Chemicus were in this regard. I recall them having similar problems, although I don’t think I ever got stuck for so long in them — since the puzzles were more tightly-bound to the lesson plan, I could always go to the in-game textbook for ideas.

Bioscopia and its kin

Around the turn of the millennium, Tivola Publishing released a series of three German-developed Myst-style first-person adventure games with educational aspirations, each focusing on a different science. The most celebrated of the three, and the one with by far the highest production values, is Chemicus. Andrew Plotkin’s review of Chemicus got me curious about it, and by extension, the other two, Physicus and Bioscopia.

Physicus and Bioscopia are both blatant Director games, Made in Macromedia and not too proud to show it, like many of their generation of cheap Myst imitators. All three games follow the basic model of wandering around a strange and deserted environment, poking at things with your cursor and solving puzzles that open up new areas — the puzzles, in these particular games, being to a large extent (but not entirely!) tests of your knowledge and understanding of the subject matter, which is also available through a sort of narrated and animated textbook within the game (sometimes a little shaky in its English translation). Physicus was much shorter and easier than Chemicus, basically a one-sitting game. I can’t really speak to the length of Bioscopia, though, because I haven’t finished it yet. I stopped playing fairly early on, finding it far less interesting than either of its brethren.

This isn’t because the curriculum was less interesting. It’s because it was less well-integrated into the gameplay. Chemicus worked as well as it did because it used practical chemistry to solve adventure-game puzzles — for example, freeing a golden object embedded in a block of silver by immersing it in nitric acid. Physicus was more like a bunch of concretized word problems: there were lots of machines that needed just one or two things adjusted, like the right weight to balance a lever, or the right amount of power through an induction coil. It was more contrived than the situational puzzles in Chemicus, but it was still based on interacting with the environment as an environment. Bioscopia, from what I’ve seen so far, mainly just tries to teach biology by occasionally quizzing you in various ways. There are puzzles about manipulating the environment, using objects on other objects and whatnot, but these puzzles have absolutely nothing to do with biology. They’re mostly about manipulating machines, prominently including robots — were the authors aware of the irony here? And some of the machines require you to demonstrate biological knowledge, but they could just as well be asking you about art history or Doctor Who trivia.

I suppose it shows something about the way the three subjects are taught in school. Chemistry and physics are presented as techniques, and techniques are things that can be applied in a simulated world. But biology is presented mainly as a collection of facts. It’s impossible to perform science of that sort.

Perhaps it’s best to not even think of Bioscopia as educational and just approach it as a game. We’ll see how well that works. But right now, I don’t think it works very well that way either.